Your website is incomplete

There are many differences between today’s online marketing tools and the brochures and other printed pieces that dominated marketing for decades. Many of those differences are obvious, but one of the most important often slips right past people: a website is never complete.

Think about developing a brochure, a white paper, or a publication. Most marketers start with some sort of objective, develop an outline covering the main points, and then create a series of drafts, each of which becomes more complete and polished. At some point, the drafting ends and you have a “final.” Everyone signs off on the final and it goes off to be printed.

Of course, because it was final at a particular moment in time, it’s instantly obsolete. Three months from now, you pick up the printed piece and wish you had worded one of the paragraphs differently. Six months from now, you’ve released an improved version of your product, and that brochure doesn’t reference it. A year from now, you’ve launched a new marketing campaign with a fresh look, and that brochure no longer fits. Sadly, you still have a couple thousand of them stacked neatly in the storeroom.

That’s where websites and other forms of online media offer an extraordinary advantage. Because the content is stored as data, it can be changed and updated instantly, usually within a matter of minutes.

So when you decide that you need to reword that paragraph, you can. When that improved version of your product is released, the copy on your site can reflect the latest and greatest. And the design can always complement your latest marketing efforts.

Unfortunately, most companies still handle their online projects with the approach they use for printed pieces. Every few years, they’ll undertake a complete redesign of a website, and after months of meetings, agonizing decision-making, and hand-wringing, they’ll produce the new version. At that point, it’s “finished” and remains untouched until they’re brave enough to tackle it again.

Most of the time, they won’t develop that courage for years. Their company changes with each passing month, their market changes every week, but their home page continues to greet prospective customers with a message about their plans for 2009 (or, in more subtle instances, a copyright statement from that year).

Instead of serving as an up-to-date reflection of the company and its business, the website then becomes nothing more than an online brochure, reflecting a single moment in time, and is every bit as useful as those stacks of brochures in the storeroom.

Often, the lack of changes has less to do with inertia on the company’s part than with its relationship with whatever vendor oversees the programming and maintenance of the site. I’ve observed that one of the most common requests made of web vendors during the courting stage is “we’d like to be able to change our site whenever we need to,” and those vendors invariably reply, “of course we’ll make that easy for you.” But it rarely seems to work out that way. Making changes becomes difficult at best and frustrating at worst, so the companies simply give up. (The Holy Grail of website design seems to be “a site we can edit easily” that really delivers.)

“The key is to stop viewing your website as a one-time project and start thinking of it as a living reflection of your business.”

In any case, the key is to stop viewing your website as a one-time project and start thinking of it as a living reflection of your business. Revise the content frequently — not because visitors will necessarily want to see something new, but because your company and your world are constantly changing. Don’t be afraid to rework something if you have a better way to say it.

Be particularly careful about making dated material prominent. If your site still includes “Our goals for 2008” or offers your 2009 annual report as the most recent detail, that taints everything else on the site. A visitor will conclude that the rest of the information is dated, too, and will assume that sharing up-to-date information isn’t a priority.

One way to keep your website (and other online materials) from becoming stale is to review regularly and religiously. At the very least, designate a particular day each month, and include it on your to-do list. Perhaps the 5th of the month will work best for you. Take an hour or so that day to review the entire site and consider the content in light of what’s happening within your organization. Look for new developments that aren’t reflected and old items that need to go away. Think of things you’ve heard prospects and new customers ask about, and see if the answers can be found easily. Then resolve to make all the needed changes before your next site review.

It’s a good idea to review your competitors’ sites regularly, too. Not only is that a simple, inexpensive form of competitive intelligence that will alert you to any subtle changes in their marketing efforts; it can also call attention to things you need to add, delete, or emphasize on your own site. If you notice that none of your competitors emphasize product reliability, for example, you can enhance the messages that hammer home the fact that your product will perform better for a longer time.

It may also be worthwhile to engage an outside marketing professional to perform a quick assessment of your site. A fresh set of eyes may identify shortcomings that are obvious to the outside world, but haven’t been noticed internally.
Most of all, make sure you have the resources and agreements to be able to update your site as frequently as you wish. If your web vendor is uncooperative about updates or drags its feet, it might be time to find a more responsive vendor. Don’t make your next selection based on how much that vendor’s website or work for others wows you, either. Ask for client references and call them to determine how eagerly the vendor handles their requests for updates and changes.
And when the CEO asks you when the new website will be done, smile and reply with complete confidence, “Never.”